By Akanksha Raja
(825 words, four-minute read)
We’ve been seeing a variety of theatre revolving around dementia and its effects on families in Singapore over the past few years, such as Pangdemonium’s The Father, The Necessary Stage’s Don’t Forget to Remember Me, and Drama Box’s forum theatre shows The Wind Came Home and Exit. The symptoms, the effects, and the arcs of these stories may share similarities, but each loss is unique, each grief is different, and there is never a right or easy way to cope with losing a loved one. Potong by Teater Ekamatra is another story about the pain of forgetting. This tender and titillating family drama is inspired by playwright Johnny Jon Jon’s relationship with his grandfather, a dementia patient.
Potong (meaning “cut” in Bahasa Melayu) follows Adam (Salif Hardie), an 18-year-old Australian-born Singaporean as he journeys to Singapore alone at the behest of his single mother Leha (Farah Ong) to undertake two rites of passage: National Service, and circumcision. While waiting on his enlistment, Adam stays with his queer, male-identifying but female-presenting uncle Saleh (Mohd Fared Jainal), and his grandmother (also played by Farah Ong), who has Alzheimer’s disease. Having long rejected Saleh for his genderqueer identity, and having lost contact with Leha after the latter’s elopement at 16, she now recognises her son as her daughter. Letting go of his identity as a son and playing the part of his sister becomes the only way Saleh can gain his mother’s acceptance and love while staying true to his gender identity as he cares for her. As Adam unearths these truths about his extended family, his mother grows ever distant from him in her attempts to spare him the burden of dealing with a secret of her own – her deteriorating memory.
The expansive set, designed by director Irfan Kasban, is dominated by warm, earthy tones: brown furniture, off-white lampshades, and soft yellow light that intensifies with scenes of heightened tension (such as when Adam confronts Saleh about Leha’s secret). The naturalistic set turns fluid during phone conversations between Leha and Saleh, where the siblings drift in and out of each other’s personal spaces – Saleh’s bedroom and Leha’s living room – beautifully illustrating the strong bond that connects them despite their continental divide. Ever so often, brightly coloured post-it notes appear and disappear from Leha’s cabinets and tables, but this symbol of her struggle to retain her memory seems more decorative than functional, bearing little significance to the plot.
Johnny Jon Jon’s glib and quirky script does away with conventional kitchen sink type dialogue, and is rife with innuendo and references to genitalia from the get-go – much of the humour in the opening conversation stems from Leha’s insistence that her son send her a visual proof of his circumcision. The double-entendre title alludes both to the severing of familial bonds, as well as to the act of circumcision. The pain of that ritual parallels the sometimes flawed, or traumatic, decisions that parents think is best to make for their children, such as Leha’s decision to soldier through her struggle alone. Adam hems and haws about going under the knife, mirroring his desire to stay with his mother. At one point, a character draws a parallel between one’s parent and the foreskin, a lurid link between parental love and phallic imagery. There’s also a bounty of sex jokes from Saleh, and a litany of dick jokes from Dr Dini the circumcision specialist (“I always get tips – otherwise I would’ve gotten the sack!”).
Dr Dini (played self-assuredly by YouTube comic Munah Bagharib) feels secondary to the plot; she’s the only character relatively uninvolved in the family’s affairs. While an endearing friendship eventually grows between her and Saleh, her role in the denouement is minimal. Adam concludes there’s more to manhood than circumcision, and the significance of that leitmotif pales towards the end. This makes Dini’s role largely one of comic relief, and the humour tends to capitalise on the transgressive in order to normalise what is taboo in everyday conversation. But for the most part, the comedy works in balancing the gravity of the plot with offbeat irreverence, and under its smutty tongue lies a warm heart.
The tragedy of dementia is often presented with a focus on the inadequacy of our efforts to hold on – to memories, to ideal loving relationships. What Potong suggests instead is the strength of love in letting go. A mother cuts her son out of her life to spare him the more protracted pain of being forgotten – to safeguard their love. A son, cut from his mother’s life for not being “enough” of a man, lets go of his familial identity as her son and becomes a daughter – to give her the care she needs. Potong is a sharply written coming-of-age story exploring the complex bond between parents and children, the sacrifices they make for each other, and how letting go is as much an expression of love as holding on.
Potong by Teater Ekamatra was written by Johnny Jon Jon, directed by Irfan Kasban, and ran from 21 to 25 March 2018 at the Malay Heritage Centre. This review is based on the performance on 21 March.